A novelist who’s fed up with the establishment profiting from “Black” entertainment uses a pen name to write a book that propels him to the heart of hypocrisy and the madness he claims to disdain.

Chuck says:

Smart, pointed, and funny, Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” is surely the timeliest and perhaps the most vital film currently in theaters. An adaptation of the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, the movie puts racism and the Woke Movement in the crosshairs, providing a fresh perspective on the former while properly eviscerating the latter. Sporting a solid cast who eagerly tear into Jefferson’s sharp script, the movie wisely uses humor to approach these touchy subjects, a tactic that invites rather than suppresses conversation and reconciliation.

Monk Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is plagued by the sort of malaise that comes to long-time academics. Overworked and underappreciated, he goes about his work but notices a general decline in his students’ work and a disturbing societal acceptance of the mediocre. This is reflected in the fact that his novels, well-written, erudite works that have failed to find an audience. That’s why the success of Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae) book, “We Lives in Da Ghetto” rankles. Filled with stereotypical portraits of Blacks as well as a formulaic plot, the novel becomes a success, embraced by those in the liberal, white middle-class who long to appear sympathetic and understanding.

Infuriated and a bit inebriated, Ellison assumes the nom de guerre “Stagg R. Leigh” and writes a parody entitled “Ma Pafology,” that he submits to his agent Arthur (John Ortez) as a joke but who passes it on to perspective publishers. Ironically, there ends up being a bidding war, those at the cloistered New York publishing houses blissfully unaware their collective legs are being pulled. Needless to say, things spin wildly out of control. The book becomes a best-seller, “Leigh” a media sensation and Ellison’s financial concerns become a thing of the past. Of course, it all comes at a cost.

At the core of the film is the question of identity. Ellison has to contend with the emotional repercussions of abandoning his literary aspirations and selling out, as well as his shifting role within his family. His sister Lisa (Tracy Ellis Ross) chastises him for being absent as a brother and son, and only returning home when he finds his mother (Leslie Uggams) has taken ill.  Soon after his return, Lisa dies and suddenly he becomes caretaker to his mother, and ostensibly his brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who has recently come out as a homosexual after leaving his own family.

His life as a professor and respectable author didn’t come with the respect he craved and the money he needed, so the question becomes how long Ellison can subsume his real self without permanently compromising his true identity. This conundrum presents itself in the budding relationship he begins with his neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), an intelligent woman who genuinely likes Ellison’s serious novels, which prompts his passive aggressive wrath.

The satire at play here is never overbearing. Jefferson lets the situation play out naturally, the ridiculous premise questioning the racial politics of Ellison’s dilemma, who knows full well that to his own self he should be true; the problem is, such integrity doesn’t pay the bills and it white guilt is the catalyst for his alter ego’s success, so be it. On the surface, it seems to be a win-win situation, until the question of conscience rears its ugly head.

The cast is exceptional, each in tune with the mildly comic tone Cord establishes early on. Though their roles are none too large, thus making their appearances more powerful, Ross, Alexander and Brody each take advantage of their turns in the spotlight.  Meanwhile, Brown steals every scene he’s in, embracing Cliff’s ever-increasing erratic nature, who comes to find that his newfound freedom proves a burden. Of course, the majority of the film rests on Wright’s shoulders and the actor runs with it, giving a nuanced performance that grounds Ellison, making his troubles relatable, his plight sympathetic.

Jefferson wisely offers up no easy answers to these social issues, knowing full well that “Fiction’s” purpose is to prompt discussion. Many may be frustrated by the final scene, but it proves to be a metaphor for the trial our country continues to struggle with. How racism will be resolved, if it ever well, is in our hands, the ending to this story as yet unwritten. More than anything, the film reminds us that the way in which we see and present ourselves, is the way in which others will views us as well.

4 Stars


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